Video Killed Trust in Police Officers

Take another look at the police officer who pepper-sprayed the peaceful student protest at UC Davis. Eventually he lost his job for this act, after months of near universal denunciation. But instead of watching him this time, look at how many of his colleagues are standing around, some of them averting their eyes, none objecting:

Take another look at the moment when NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Balonga pepper-sprays a small group of captive women already corralled by other officers:

That is a man supremely confident that his nearby NYPD colleagues will neither stop him nor file a complaint about his abuse of protestors who posed no threat to anyone. But for the fact that he was caught on video he never would've been disciplined.

Heather MacDonald of City Journal, who has reported on police departments all over the United States, regularly assures readers that the NYPD is one of the best in the nation. Yet when NYPD officer Adrian Schoolcraft spent months secretly recording evidence of legal violations and policy violations in the 81st precinct, he wasn't documenting behavior that had already been reported to internal affairs and investigated. Other cops were likely bothered by misbehavior that was going on. But he was the only one to expose it. Other police officers knew that if they objected aggressively they'd be risking their jobs, or their status among fellow officers, or their chances for advancement, so they kept quiet. That doesn't make them bad people. It does make them an illustration of why police officers cannot be reflexively trusted by the public: powerful incentives regularly cause them to show greater loyalty to colleagues than the public, a pattern that exists in just about every institution. Police officers should be no more and no less trusted than Catholic priests, Penn State football coaches, or GM recall managers.

Yet they're often afforded a presumption that their version of events is true, no matter how many times individual cops are caught falsifying reports or lying on the stand. 

In that item from The Federalist quoted at the beginning of this article, Hans Fiene urges conservatives who reflexively trust the police to show a bit more skepticism. "Police brutality is not the Bogeyman," he writes. "It’s not an urban legend witnessed by none but told by many. It’s not a myth created by a primitive tribe that is too simple to understand the true source of the brokenness in its communities. Black people believe in police brutality for the same reason they believe in rain—because they’ve felt it ... For those of us who have never experienced law enforcement corrupted by power, basic human decency should require that we try to understand and consider the perspective of those who have..."

That's true. But trusting that minority groups aren't fabricating police misconduct isn't even as necessary as it was for, say, the white suburbanite of 1985, limited by what he'd seen with his eyes, read in the local paper, or watched on CBS. Any doubt that excessive force by law enforcement is a widespread problem can now be laid to rest in a single hour with nothing more than access to YouTube.

Start here or here or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. If you keep searching, you'll come to the conclusion that this sort of violence is epidemic long before you run out of video confirmation. Then remember the vast majority of these incidents are never videotaped. 

The answer isn't to stop respecting all police officers, or to assume that any allegation of police misconduct is true. Even officers involved in suspicious killings, like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, deserve a fair hearing from the public. No one knows for sure what happened when Mike Brown was killed, and while the reaction of local police to protesters does not inspire confidence, the objective ought to be an impartial, accurate investigation by a credible, independent party.

But in the age of YouTube and Google, where police brutality can be seen from the comfort of one's home, along with documentation from dozens of serious law enforcement scandals, there is no longer any valid excuse for being blind to bad cops generally, or denying the possibility that an officer could have callously killed an unarmed man. 

In my generation, an increasing number of people will reach the conclusion that when a dispute arises pitting the word of law enforcement against the word of the policed, they ought to be on equal footing—disputes should be adjudicated by dispassionately weighing the available evidence, not reflexively giving police officers a benefit of the doubt that their profession, as a collective, has not earned (although you wouldn't know it from police brass, judges, and district attorneys). As the police continue to lose the trust of the public, due largely to documented instances of bad behavior by fellow officers, as well as law enforcement's longstanding inability to police themselves, I suspect that more and more good cops will be clamoring for cameras on their dashboards and lapels. Until then, citizens ought to record police during every incident as it unfolds. Doing so will bring vindication to good cops and indictments of bad cops. 

Don't trust. Verify.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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